By Thomas Scott
First and foremost, we all should commend the collaborative efforts of ESPN, the SWAC, MEAC, and athletic directors like Floyd Kerr in orchestrating the first MEAC/SWAC bowl game. These individuals made the tough decision to forego the traditional FCS playoff model, and I for one am glad.
There has been much debate surrounding HBCUs in whether they should continue to compete in these playoffs or create an avenue or revenue for themselves. Faced with a myriad of problems associated with LRI or Low Resource Institution status, these schools created a way to build fan interest, boost revenue, and improve the student-athlete experience. In fact, ESPN has pledged to give both the SWAC and MEAC conferences 1 million dollars apiece to distribute amongst member institutions for playing in this bowl game.
This is truly a monumental moment in HBCU football history. But as a fan, it got me thinking. What if the future success of the MEAC/SWAC bowl game could pave the way for a national HBCU college football playoff system similar to the one in Division I football?
Each year polls like the Heritage Sports Radio Network and BOXTOROW crown national HBCU champions, but we never get to see the teams duke it out on the field. A playoff system could actually crown an outright national HBCU champion.
ABC recently reported, the College Football Playoff Semifinal delivered the highest overnight ratings ever for a non-championship game on ESPN and ABC. The ratings of these games are a clear indication of how successful a playoff format can be.
I am in no way suggesting that an HBCU Playoff system could rival the Division I Playoff system in ratings. However, the system itself is successful because it provides drama, creates new matchups, renews rivalries, adds importance to every regular season game, sparks debates on who should qualify, and ultimately gives one school’s fan base supreme bragging rights.
How exactly could this model work for HBCUs? First, let’s consider each HBCU conference (SWAC, MEAC, SIAC, and CIAA) are the equivalent of Division I “power conferences.” Just like in Division I, a committee could be arranged to rank teams within each of these conferences. At the end of the year the winners of the SWAC, SIAC, and CIAA championship games would be guaranteed a spot in the playoff. Since the MEAC does not have a championship game, the committee would be tasked with determining the best team from that conference. After these four teams are finalized, the committee would then re-seed each of the teams in a four team playoff. The seeding process would definitely provide plenty of drama. Does an undefeated team from the SIAC deserve a higher ranking than a one or two loss team from the MEAC? Questions like this would surface every year and, quite frankly, no one has the answers. But that’s the beauty of it all.
If this system had been implemented this year, the playoffs would consist of CIAA champion Virginia State (10-3), SIAC champion Tuskegee University (9-3), SWAC champion Alcorn State (9-3), and one of the five MEAC teams that held a share of the MEAC title. These teams included Morgan State, Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, and South Carolina State. There is no telling what MEAC team the selection committee would have picked and what team would have prevailed. For all we know a Division II team could have come out on top.
Continuing with this model, the top two seeds would be guaranteed a home semifinal playoff game and the championship game would be played at a neutral location. This system rewards regular season excellence and provides schools with additional revenue of one home game. Without a playoff system there is no true way to crown a national HBCU champion.
According to the latest NCAA revenue report, no FCS athletic department made money in 2013. So why continue down the path? I may not have the answers, but I’m sure collectively we have enough support and fan interest to create a playoff of our own. A playoff would almost certainly help bolster alumni support, campus enrollment, student support, and the overall athletic experience.
Ultimately, a HBCU playoff would boost revenue. Many people thought Division I college football would never have a playoff, but eventually the fans prevailed. ESPN has already proven a commitment to producing quality sporting events that people want.
So if you believe this event could work, let’s make our voice heard. Hashtag #WeWantHBCUPlayoffs on social media and let’s see the buzz we can create. Believe it or not, they are listening.
Thomas Scott is a Tuskegee University alum, father and avid HBCU Sports fan. You can follow him on Twitter @TommieKukoc